Neanderthal man was living in Britain 40,000 years earlier than thought

Neanderthal man was living in Britain at the start of the last ice age - 40,000 years earlier than previously thought, archaeologists have said.

Published: 12:21PM BST 01 Jun 2010


Francis Wenban-Smith from the University of Southampton discovered two ancient flint hand tools used to cut meat at the M25/A2 road junction at Dartford, Kent, during an excavation funded by the Highways Agency.


Tests on sediment burying the flints showed they date from around 100,000 years ago - proving Neanderthals were living in Britain at this time.


The country was previously assumed to have been uninhabited during this period.

''I couldn't believe my eyes when I received the test results,'' said Dr Wenban-Smith.

''We know that Neanderthals inhabited Northern France at this time, but this new evidence suggests that as soon as sea levels dropped, and a 'land bridge' appeared across the English Channel, they made the journey by foot to Kent.''

Early pre-Neanderthals inhabited Britain before the last ice age, but were forced south by the severe cold about 200,000 years ago.

When the climate warmed up again between 130,000 and 110,000 years ago, they could not get back because, similar to today, the Channel sea-level was raised, blocking their path.

The new discovery, commissioned by Oxford Archaeology, showed they returned to Britain much earlier than 60,000 years ago, as previous evidence suggested.

David Score, Oxford Archaeology Project Manager, said: ''The fieldwork uncovered a significant amount of activity at the Dartford site in the Bronze Age and Roman periods, but it is deeper trenches excavated through much older sediments which have yielded the most interesting results - shedding light on a long period when there was assumed to have been an absence of early man from Britain.''

One theory is that Neanderthals were attracted back to Kent by the flint-rich chalk downs which were visible from France.

These supported herds of mammoth, rhino, horse and deer - an important source of food in sub-arctic conditions back then.

"These are people who had no real shelter - no houses, not even caves - so we can only speculate that by the time they returned, they had developed physiologically to cope with the cold, as well as developing behavioural strategies such as planning winter stores and making good use of fire,'' said Dr Wenban-Smith.

Dr Wenban-Smith explained more evidence was needed to date their presence more accurately, to show how many were living in Kent at this time, how far they roamed into Britain and how long they stayed for.

The English Channel was also a critical area for further research, with the buried landscape between Boulogne and Newhaven possibly containing the crucial evidence, he said.

Other results from the project include the discovery of a woolly rhino tooth in the floodplain gravels of the River Darent, dated at around 40,000 years old.



Bird rock art could be world's oldest



A ROCK PAINTING THAT appears to be of a bird that went extinct about 40,000 years ago has been discovered in northern Australia. If confirmed, this would be the oldest rock art anywhere in the world, pre-dating the famous Chauvet cave in southern France by some 7,000 years.


The red ochre painting was found in southwest Arnhem Land by a member of the Jawoyn Association, which represents the local traditional owners of the land. When Robert Gunn, an archaeologist brought in to document rock art in the area, saw the painting he immediately thought it looked like Genyornis, an emu-like, big-beaked, thick-legged bird that went extinct along with other Australian megafauna between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago.


"But I bit my tongue, and sent it off to a recognised authority, palaeontologist Peter Murray in Darwin, to see what he thought. When he confirmed that it probably was Genyornis, it was pretty exciting," Robert says.


Robert thinks there are two possible interpretations: either this is among the oldest rock paintings in the world, or Genyornis went extinct later than anybody thinks.


But there's no good archaeological or palaeontological evidence that Genyornis survived longer than about 40,000 years ago, says Bruno David, an archaeologist and rock art specialist at Monash University in Melbourne, who has seen photos of the painting and who has worked in the region. "If this is Genyornis, then it has to be more than 40,000 years old," he says.


Robert is now planning to record the site in much more detail, and next year Bruno and his team will excavate the area thoroughly. A rock fall created the exposed face on which the painting was made. By studying buried samples from beneath the fallen rock, the team should be able to work out the age of the rock face. If it is older than 40,000 years, this won't prove that the painting is that old, but it will support the idea that it could be.


Some rock art specialists strongly suspect that the painting is younger. The oldest pigment found on a rock anywhere in Australia is 28,000 years old, but the image is so covered with dust and other rocky accretions, it's impossible to know what it looked like.


The Genyornis site is a shallow shelter and most such paintings in Australia are thought to be less than about 5,000 years old; older ones are thought to have been eroded away by weather. The Chauvet artworks, in contrast, are deep inside a cave that was sealed for more than 20,000 years. However, some of the sandstone in Arnhem Land does have the advantage of being extremely hard and durable.


Bruno says it's important to be cautious. The features of the painted bird match the features of the extinct Genyornis very closely, but this might be a coincidence, he says. "It's possible that at some time in the past, people were painting animals that didn't necessarily match living species - or that the bird wasn't a physical bird, but an animal that was part of the local, ancestral Jawoyn Dreaming beliefs," he says. And if this is the case, the painting could have been made at any time in the past.


But either way it's exciting, he says. "If it's Genyornis, then it's of extreme significance. If not, it's very significant because it tells us something about the way people understood their landscapes."


Read more: http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/worlds-oldest-rock-art-found.htm#ixzz0q4chEnQv



British archaeologists fight with Italian farmer to save ancient aqueduct

British archaeologists are battling with an Italian farmer to save the site of an ancient aqueduct which provided Rome with fresh water 1,900 years ago.

By Nick Squires in Rome

Published: 10:00PM BST 03 Jun 2010


Archeologists and documentary makers inspect the interior of a grotto which is believed to sit on top of the headwaters of a 1900 year old aqueduct

In January father and son team Edward and Michael O'Neill discovered the headwaters of the aqueduct, which was built by the Emperor Trajan, hidden beneath a crumbling 13th century church north of Rome.

A sophisticated example of Roman hydraulic engineering, the aqueduct, known as the Aqua Traiana, was inaugurated in 109AD and carried fresh water 35 miles to the imperial capital.


But since the discovery was publicised, the archeologists claim that the farmer on whose land it stands has begun a crude excavation of the site in the hope of finding valuable Roman treasure.

They claim to have photographic evidence that the owner has burned vegetation around the entrance to the underground grotto, cut down mature fig trees which are holding the fragile structure together with their thick roots and started to dismantle sections of masonry.

"It's a complete tragedy," Edward O'Neill told the Daily Telegraph. "He's doing some kind of treasure hunt.

"What is needed is an expert process by archeologists to preserve the site." Repeated telephone calls to the landowner, Davide Piccioni, went unanswered yesterday.

In an attempt to stop the alleged damage to the site, the O'Neills and two American archeologists Prof Katherine Rinne of Virginia University and Prof Rabun Taylor of the University of Texas at Austin have sent a letter to Italian heritage authorities.

They have called for urgent intervention in order to prevent the landowner from further damaging the site, which they say has been "completely transformed" in the last six months.

They have also complained that the farmer has closed off access to the site since the grotto and spring were discovered five months ago.

The mayor of the local town, Lucia Dutto, said she too was concerned. "We have asked the superintendent of archaeology to carry out an immediate inspection of the site, so that further interference can be prevented. But until that happens, we can do nothing because it is private property."



Prehistoric burial mounds found in Forest

10:40am Thursday 3rd June 2010


AMAZING archaeological discoveries have been made in the New Forest.


Prehistoric burial mounds, a World War II practice bombing range and searchlight position have all been found between Burley and Godshill.


Airborne light detecting and ranging (lidar) has revealed the archaeological gems using lasers.


Archaeological researcher Tom Dommett said: "One of lidar's greatest benefits in the Forest is its ability to penetrate all but the densest vegetation like conifer or holly.


"It reveals very subtle features which are difficult to see on the ground and are even more difficult to map accurately, particularly in woodland.


"It is also very helpful with stream restoration projects because it can pick out the former natural stream beds, and it can be used to pinpoint veteran trees."


Tom explained that because lidar is indiscriminate in what it shows the data sometimes has to be backed up by targeted field survey, known as ground-truthing.


"This is where the involvement of the wider volunteering community has been really helpful and the New Forest History and Archaeology Group have already made an invaluable contribution, " he said.


"At the current rate of survey carried out in the National Park it would take roughly 200 years to obtain a full understanding of the archaeological resource, but with lidar we will hopefully be able to do it in 10 years.


"There is great potential for lidar to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the Forest's past and, crucially, our ability to preserve and protect that past for the benefit of future generations."


Archaeologists usually rely on lengthy and labour-intensive field surveys to uncover such features, but lidar speeds up the process.


It uses a pulsed laser beam that is scanned from side to side as the aircraft flies over the survey area, measuring up to 100,000 points per second to build a detailed digital model of the landscape and the features upon it.


Lidar was developed for submarine detection 50 years ago but its value to archaeologists has only been recognised in the last decade.




Researchers scouring a remote South Pacific island describe clues that Amelia Earhart may have struggled to survive there after an emergency landing.

By Rossella Lorenzi

Thu Jun 3, 2010 09:33 AM ET



  1. Some believe Amelia Earhart and her navigator landed and eventually died on a remote South Pacific island.
  2. A partial skeleton was found (and later lost) on the island in 1940 that matched Earhart's description.
  3. Researchers have found items on the island, including a knife and jar, that may have been used by the aviatrix.


Tantalizing new clues are surfacing in the Amelia Earhart mystery, according to researchers scouring a remote South Pacific island believed to be the final resting place of the legendary aviatrix.


Three pieces of a pocket knife and fragments of what might be a broken cosmetic glass jar are adding new evidence that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan landed and eventually died as castaways on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited tropical island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati. The island was some 300 miles southeast of their target destination, Howland Island.


"These objects have the potential to yield DNA, specifically what is known as 'touch DNA','" Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), told Discovery News in an email interview from Nikumaroro.


Gillespie and his team will be searching the tiny island until June 14 for evidence that Earhart's twin-engine plane, the "Electra," did not crash in the ocean and sink, as it was assumed after the futile massive search that followed the aviatrix's disappearance on July 2, 1937.


Tall, slender, blonde and brave, Earhart was flying over the Pacific Ocean in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator. In her final radio transmission Earhart reported that her aircraft was running low on fuel.


According to Gillespie, recent advances in the ability to extract DNA from touched objects might help solve the enduring aviation mystery.


"If DNA from the recovered objects matches the Earhart reference sample now held by the DNA lab we've been working with, we'll have what most people would consider to be conclusive evidence that Amelia Earhart spent her last days on Nikumaroro," Gillespie said.


The expedition marks TIGHAR's tenth visit to Nikumaroro since 1989. During the previous campaigns, the group uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence.


The ongoing excavation is now focusing on the island's remote southeast end, in an area called the Seven Site. Densely vegetated in shrubs known as Scaevola frutescens, the site appears to be where the partial skeleton of a castaway was found in 1940.


Recovered by British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher, the human remains were described in a forensic report and attributed to a white female of northern European extraction, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, a stature consistent with that of Amelia Earhart. Unfortunately the bones have been lost.


Gillespie believes that many of the bones might have been carried off by giant coconut crabs, suggesting an unmerciful end for Earhart. However, parts of the skeleton not found in 1940 (the spine, ribs, half of the pelvis, hands and feet, one arm, and one lower leg) may still remain at the site, scattered in the bush.


The researchers have just carried out an experiment to test the hypothesis.


"In 2007 we conducted a taphonomy experiment with a small pig carcass to see how quickly the crabs would eat the remains, and how far, if at all, the crabs dragged the bones. The primary answers were 'pretty quickly' and 'all over the place,'" Patricia Thrasher, TIGHAR's president, told Discovery News.


"This trip, they went back to the site to look at the bones that were left. It's now been three years that these mammal bones have been out in the weather on Nikumaroro. If Gallagher found Amelia Earhart's bones, that's how long they would have been lying out," Thrasher said. 


Indeed, the bones looked much older than three years, in accordance with Gallagher's report of gray, pitted, dry remains.


Gillespie dropped the pig bones on the coral rubble, and they virtually disappeared, to the point that it took some searching to find them again some 10 minutes later.


Apart from searching the coral rubble for bones not seen by Gallangher, the team is investigating an area around a big Ren tree. There, they spotted a rough ring of fire remains which prompted several questions.


Did the castaway construct a ring of fire to keep the crabs away at night? Was it an attempt to signal search aircraft?


Other questions come from the pocket knife and the glass jar fragments. Perhaps a cosmetic jar, the small container features some sort of embossing on the base, either letters or numbers now unreadable because of the dirt. 


"The finds are indeed important. In the case of the knife, we found part of it in 2007 and have now found more. The artifacts tell a story of an ordinary pocket knife that was beaten apart to detach the blades for some reason," Thrasher said. 


Was the castaway trying to make a fishing spear? Were the blades used for prying clams?


More questions are likely to come up in the next days. The researchers have just found another fire feature and are about to excavate the area, while other members of the team are exploring the Western Reef Slope, a strip of coral reef at the island's western end.


Using a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV), they plan to carry out an underwater search for the wreckage of Earhart's "Electra."


According to the researchers, the steep nature of the reef slope makes it likely that any wreckage lies perhaps as far as 1,000 feet down.



'Gladiator burial ground' discovered in York

The world's best-preserved gladiator burial ground - the final resting place of warriors who battled wild beasts and each other before being dispatched with a hammer blow to the skull - may have been discovered in York.

By Matthew Moore

Published: 6:30AM BST 07 Jun 2010


Skeletons unearthed at a site in York may be part of the world's only well-preserved Roman gladiator cemetery Photo: C4

Dozens of skeletons found beneath the garden of a former 18th Century mansion are probably those of professional fighters who fought, and died, for the entertainment of the ruling Romans.

The remains of around 80 people were discovered during building work at a site to the west of the city centre in 2004, but their likely origins are only now being revealed thanks to extensive forensic analysis.


Almost all the corpses are of robust young males, many of whom met their death by decapitation between the late first and fourth centuries AD.

Archaeologists initially suspected that they were Roman soldiers loyal to Emperor Severus who were executed in the bloody aftermath of his traitorous son Caracalla's coup in 211 AD.

But researchers from the York Archaeological Trust, which is leading the investigation, have now discovered tantalising evidence that the men were actually Gladiators brought to Britain from across the Mediterranean to fight at an as-yet-undiscovered amphitheatre.

Kurt Hunter-Mann, a field officer at the trust, said: "One of the most significant items of evidence is a large carnivore bite mark - probably inflicted by a lion, tiger or bear - an injury which must have been sustained in an arena context."

The majority of the men had sustained brutal weapon injuries consistent with gladiatorial combat. Close scrutiny of the skeletons also showed that many of the dead had one arm that was stronger than the other - an indication that they had been trained to use large weapons from a young age.

Furthermore, damage sustained by their skulls suggested that some of the men had been killed by a hammer blow to the head, a gladiatorial "coup de grace" for which evidence has also been uncovered at a major Roman graveyard in Ephesus, Turkey.

The researchers have made clear that the gladiator explanation is just their "lead theory" and that more study is required. But academics have said that the find could put Britain at the forefront of Roman Empire archaeology.

Dr Michael Wysocki, senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, which helped analyse the bones, said: "These are internationally important discoveries. We don't have any other potential gladiator cemeteries with this level of preservation anywhere else in the world."

Amphitheatres have been discovered at several old Roman settlements across England, including Chester and Cirencester, although not in York.

Some Roman amphitheatres were made from wood, meaning their locations may never be identified.

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and an expert in ancient history, cautioned that alternative explanations for the identities of the York bodies deserved further investigation, but said that the find was "very exciting stuff".

He said: "If you have decapitations there's something pretty remarkable about the burials. These are not ordinary people who have had ordinary deaths."

Prof Wallace-Hadrill added that advances in modern pathology were throwing new light on historical remains.

"Skeletons can be incredibly eloquent," he said. "We can now learn so much about the living person from their skeleton - far more than just age and sex."

Gladiators: Back From The Dead will be shown on Channel 4 on Monday June 14 at 9pm.